Skip to content
Home » Lessons From My Father’s Final Days: Laurel Braitman (Transcript) 

Lessons From My Father’s Final Days: Laurel Braitman (Transcript) 

Here is the full transcript of writer Laurel Braitman’s talk titled “Lessons From My Father’s Final Days” at TED Talks 2024 conference.

Listen to the audio version here:


An Unconventional Childhood

You could say I had an unconventional childhood for a couple reasons. I was born to Jewish avocado and citrus growers in rural Southern California. My dad was a surgeon at our local hospital and my mom ran the ranch where she sold, we sold our fruit commercially and they rescued donkeys. My early childhood was so beautiful, strange, and very privileged.

You could say that I really had nothing to worry about until I did. When I was three and my dad was 42, he was diagnosed with metastatic bone cancer. And he was told he had six months to live. He had his right leg amputated and he went in for chemo and radiation, which in the early 1980s for bone cancer was especially brutal.

A Miraculous Recovery

And then miraculously, he didn’t die. First we got a year, then we got two, then we got five, and then we got seven. And then when I was 11, the cancer came back and stayed for good. We lived between scans, like that’s how our time was meted out, and we lived with the constant ticking clock of mortality.

We all have a clock like this, it’s just in my family, we could hear ours all the time. More often than not, one of his scans turned up something. Back tumor here, a neck tumor there, his other knee, and then he would go in for treatment and then he would come back to us. It was a little bit like a sinister version of the giving tree, only he was trading body parts for time with us.

Survival School

And then as I mentioned, when I was 11, really he found out this is what was going to kill him and quickly, and that’s when he decided that he was going to teach my brother and I all the skills we would need to know to survive without him.

And so while other kids were having play dates after school and riding their bikes, my brother and I were in my dad’s version of survival school. And we were learning all kinds of things, how to squish a man’s eyeballs out if I was ever attacked, all about the Dewey Decimal System, I don’t know why, the role of nitrogen in soil health, member nations of the United Nations, and so much more. He was also doing a lot of things to be present for us after he died.

Planning for the Future

So things like becoming a beekeeper and putting away enough honey that he knew wouldn’t spoil so that we would have it for decades. Or planting trees around the ranch that would shade and feed us after he was gone. Or even though I was only 12 at this point, he started a coop of doves and put my brother in charge so that he would let them go at my wedding someday. Throughout it all, I knew he was suffering, and often in terrible pain, even though he really did not like to talk about it.

A Hidden Truth

And he always used to say that when he couldn’t enjoy life with me, my brother, and my mom, he would die. And I took this at face value until one afternoon when I was 16. I went into their medicine cabinet looking for something, and I found an unmarked pill bottle with dosage instructions. And I just knew.

It was a terminal prescription. It was right-to-die medication before it was legal. I wasn’t mad. I immediately understood what he had been saying all those years and that he had a plan, that there was a level of pain and suffering that he wasn’t willing to experience.

A Fateful Argument

And I didn’t say anything to anybody, just put it back and left. And then, six months later, we were on the phone, and we got into a terrible fight. It was so stupid. It was about me not wanting to do my college applications, and I was so angry, and I hung up on him without saying goodbye and without saying I loved him.

I didn’t know it, but he was about to take his medication. And I think when it came down to it, saying goodbye to me was just too impossible. By the time I got home, he was unconscious, and I would never hear his voice again. I dealt with his death by doubling down on the things he wanted for me.

Coping Through Achievement

I chased academic honors like a drug. I played not one, but two Division I college sports. I wrote a book. I got my PhD. And then, in my mid-thirties, I realized I was just completely exhausted.

I had been living my entire adult life in a way to prove to myself that I was good, because someone who is good is not someone who hangs up on her dying dad. I was using achievement and all of the shiny things that come along with it as a way of anesthetizing my own bad feelings of shame, regret, and fear. Those feelings were so big, I worried that if I let myself feel them for even a minute, I would never ever feel anything else again.

Confronting Emotions

But you cannot kill negative feelings, sadly, with work and avoidance. And mine came back with a jolt. On the outside, I was successful and thriving. And on the inside, I was anxious, terrified, and questioning my worth.

By avoiding all of the negative feelings, I was muting the fantastic ones, too. I was so scared about missing out and losing more of the best things in life—joy, awe, love, wonder—that I couldn’t even let myself experience them. I needed to find a new way to be. I wanted to find a new way to be.

Seeking a New Path

So, I did a bunch of stuff. I interviewed a ton of grief specialists and therapists, and I even went out into the wilderness with no food and no tent to do the thing that scared me most, which was to be alone with my own thoughts and feelings and absolutely nothing to distract me from them. I learned I can go about five days without eating, about a week without talking to anyone, and forever without checking my phone. But what hit me the hardest was becoming a volunteer at a grief support organization for kids.

Understanding Grief

So many of them thought they were bad, too. They’d been out of the room playing when their mom died, or they’d said something in anger to an ill parent that they regretted. I could so clearly see that the painful things that happened to these kids were not their fault. For the first time, I was able to see that that was probably true for me, too.

By blaming themselves, the kids were making their losses make sense. Even though it hurt to blame themselves, it gave them a reason for the terrible thing that happened, like losing someone they love for no reason at all. Maybe some of you can relate. Often when we feel difficult things, we blame ourselves because it’s easier than admitting we have no control.

Letting Go of Guilt

That’s what I had been doing for the 25 years since my dad died. But just because you feel guilt and shame does not mean you did something wrong. Just because you feel regret does not necessarily mean you should have acted differently. It sounds very simple, and it is very hard to accept.

But life is nothing except one long sushi conveyor belt of things that are going to test you and teach you at the same time. I know this because first I lost my dad, but then we lost our family home to wildfire. The house and everything in it burned, including almost everything that my dad had worked so hard to do and leave for us after he died. And yet, in one small wooden shed that I do not know how this was spared by the fire, behind a bunch of old farming equipment, we found a couple five-gallon plastic buckets of my dad’s honey.

A Sweet Discovery

He’d harvested it more than 30 years earlier, and it was still perfect. The ancient Egyptians used honey as a sweetener and also as a natural antibiotic. On one papyrus it was written that when the sun god cried, his tears fell to earth and became bees that made honey for the people. Life from grief, pain into sweetness, sorrow into medicine.

Saying Goodbye

Two years after the fire, I lost my mom, also to cancer, but quickly this time. She chose right to die too, which was legal now, and because of the experience we’d had with my dad, we vowed that this time would be totally different. No one would be left wondering if they messed up or if she knew how much she meant to them. So we had a living memorial service for her, and we each took turns telling her how much she meant to us, and she said the same thing back.

Embracing Life’s Dualities

It was so beautiful, and it also really hurt. I think if you can swing it, everyone deserves the chance to say goodbye. What I know now, and what I wish I could tell my younger self, is that you cannot have joy without pain. You cannot have resilience without challenges, happiness without sadness, or bravery without fear.

These things are not opposites. They are partners. There is no such thing as happily ever after, I’m sorry. There is only sadly happy and happily sad.

The Cosmic Release Form

And that’s enough. It’s more than enough, honestly. I like to think that before we enter this world, we are asked to sign a kind of cosmic release form, acknowledging the extreme risk it is to care deeply about anyone or anything or any place. I imagine it goes something like this.

“I hereby acknowledge that in exchange for the chance to live, I must accept both pain and pleasure, joy and sorrow, often at the exact same time. This is the ticket price for the chance that is to live.” It’s never too late to sign it. Thank you.

Related Posts